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Trump’s Got Some Big Election Concerns. Ukraine’s Not One.

The president may be embroiled in impeachment. But his mind has drifted to other domestic problems recently.

Hanna TrudoJan. 26, 2020 5:05 AM ET

President Trump has some big election concerns. And Ukraine is not one of them.

As the president finds himself embroiled in impeachment, several of the biggest vulnerabilities for his 2020 re-election campaign are popping up elsewhere. Earlier this month, Trump made an abrupt claim that he was a defender of protections for pre-existing conditions, in direct contrast to the legal and legislative actions his administration has taken. Then, reports surfaced showing him blowing up at his own cabinet secretary over the administration’s inability to get prescription drug prices under control. Most recently, he appeared to declare that entitlements were on the chopping block in his second term, before quickly moving to try and clean up the political mess he’d created.

Collectively, the moves underscore how different issues than those dominating the news cycle seem to be worrying the president heading into the election. While Trump continues to publicly lash out at Democrats over impeachment, he appears keenly aware of vulnerabilities elsewhere on the domestic policy front. 

“Trump’s inability to govern is a target-rich environment for Democrats,” said Jim Manley, a longtime top Democratic Senate aide. “The guy’s smart enough to realize he needs to run on a domestic agenda. The problem he’s having is he has no filter, he’s saying this stuff publicly that he’s supposed to keep private.”  

If Trump feels vulnerable on these fronts, it is largely a fault of his own. His administration has supported a Republican-led lawsuit which would overturn the Affordable Care Act, even after enduring massive losses in the 2018 midterms over their legislative attempts to do the same. 

Amid an ad campaign from Democratic candidate Mike Bloomberg pointing this out, the president has scrambled to defend himself, arguing that he remains committed to ensuring the protection of pre-existing conditions, a key Obamacare provision. But the record is pretty damning and represents—for Democrats—a major opportunity. 

“His ego can't let him look past the car wreck of his impeachment and focus on the train wreck he's doing on health care for the voters he needs to get re-elected,” Democratic Strategist Jesse Ferguson told The Daily Beast. “Like a toddler, Donald Trump does the most harm to himself when he is already in a bad mood."

Health care is routinely ranked as Americans’ top voting concern, and it’s not just with respect to pre-existing condition protections. 

Last week, Trump reportedly fumed at Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar over his handling of several health-care policies, including prescription drug prices, an issue on which the president has spent significant time and resources, often touting his own administration’s progress. 

According to a Washington Post report published last Friday, Trump was shown polling data about the public’s trust of both parties on a variety of issues in key battlegrounds, which indicated that voters trusted Democrats more on health care. Trump reportedly said that Democrats would “kill us” on health care, specifically taking issue with Azar’s handling of lowering drug prices. And he may have reason to worry.

Democrats have signalled that they intend to put a heavy focus on prescription drug prices, with former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), having campaigned on lowering prices for months. And top party officials have been open about their desire to return to the playbook that worked so well for them in the 2018 elections, which was premised on the promise to protect the ACA, and lower prescription drug costs.  A national poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation released in September found that 70 percent of Americans wanted members of Congress to make lowering drug prices their top priority.

Meanwhile, as impeachment proceedings slog on to a fourth day in the Republican-held Senate, Trump appeared to make a notable departure from previous campaign statements and suggested that he’s open to cutting federal entitlement programs as a potential deficit reduction measure in his second term. 

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Trump was asked about his agenda for handling entitlements and said “at some point they will be” on the table. When asked about Medicare specifically, Trump said “we're going to look” at it.

It didn’t take long for Democrats to pounce. Just two days Trump made those comments, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee launched Facebook ads asking if vulnerable House Republicans will join him in supporting cuts.

“House Republicans already backed Trump’s efforts to eliminate protections for people with pre-existing conditions and keep prescription drug costs high. Voters deserve to know if House Republicans will also blindly support his plan to gut Medicare,” DCCC Spokesperson Robyn Patterson said in a statement. “Americans now face a clear choice between Democrats who are fighting to lower drug prices–and Washington Republicans who won’t stop attacking their health care.”

Trump’s comments represented a departure from his normal script. In 2016, he campaigned on leaving entitlement programs as is, boasting that he was the rare Republican who didn’t want to touch Social Security or Medicare. 

And, sure enough, within days of his Davos remarks, he was cleaning it up. On Thursday, Trump jumped on his favorite medium to make a case that it is, in fact, Democrats who are a danger to the Roosevelt-era entitlement program.

“Democrats are going to destroy your Social Security. I have totally left it alone, as promised, and will save it!” Trump tweeted.

Despite his protestation, Trump’s own budget does propose cuts to Social Security.  And to some Democrats, the likelihood that the eventual presidential nominee will take him to task over both that and his comments about considering reductions in his second term is a near certainty. 

“The election is going to be all about Donald Trump and this is going to be part of the mosaic,” Manley said. “He’s going to sit there and lie about it.”